Looking Back from the Top: Amanda McGennis’s Decade-Spanning Career in the Construction Industry
Amanda McGennis has seen lows and highs over her 33 years in the construction industry before retiring as senior vice president of the Arizona Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America in December 2022.
While her career nadir likely came when photos of a visit to Senator John McCain’s office were blown out by setting her camera to panoramic mode, settling the question of her professional apex is somewhat trickier.
Based on elevation, the highpoint was undoubtedly scaling a crane towering 20 or more stories above Phoenix on a Sunday morning. However, by McGennis’s reckoning, her pinnacle might have come with the passage of Proposition 400 in 2004, the culmination of more than three years of grassroots organizing. The reason that piece of legislation looms so large over her list of accomplishments is the same one that accounts for her success in the first place: her love of the construction industry and the people who make it up.
Proposition 400 extended a half-cent County Transportation Excise Tax to support infrastructure like freeways, highways, arterial roads, and transit. McGennis explained that constructing these improvements provided jobs directly while enabling further growth, generating even more jobs. “I think successfully passing Prop 400 in 2004 was quite an accomplishment,” McGennis says. “We worked really hard on getting our industry out to vote, explaining the importance of the extension for future employment opportunities as well as remaining in the state for work.”
During her 22 years with the AZAGC, McGennis focused on solving problems for contractors and communities. Her portfolio was as broad as the crane she climbed was high, including duties ranging from lobbying to administration to education. She established and ran training programs to keep workers safe, control dust levels, mitigate erosion, reduce pollution, and help contractors with specification revisions to improve the construction process.
Before coming to Arizona, McGennis’s worked for the University of Kentucky swim program, where she was the “learn to swim” program coordinator. She had taken a part-time position in Lexington, Kentucky, despite a background in hotel sales and banquets due to the insular nature of the area’s hospitality industry. Then, in 1989, a friend in the university’s athletic program heard that a national trade association called the Asphalt Institute was moving to town and offered to pass McGennis’s name along.
When McGennis went to interview, she was offered a position as an executive assistant but turned it down due to a lack of interest in making coffee or learning shorthand. However, the person conducting her interview mentioned other positions opening in the future. After not hearing back for a few weeks, McGennis decided to follow up in person.
“When I went up and asked to see her, coming off of the, back then, fax machine, was a position for a seminar coordinator,” McGennis said. “And she said, ‘Here, look at this. Does this interest you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that interests me.’ She said, ‘Okay, you're hired.’”
The position entailed McGennis coordinating the Asphalt Institute’s educational programs across the country and organizing the locations, books, certificates, and registrations. In addition, she worked with state, city, county, and federal organizations across the U.S. and some international countries to train individuals in asphalt pavement materials, design, and construction. The association also sold publications globally, including in Iraq. So, when an order bearing stamps with Saddam Hussein’s likeness arrived in the mail, McGennis cut one out and added it to her collection. She also became the de facto office translator as some staff members had never spoken with customers outside of the country and had difficulty understanding international callers.
After nine years at Asphalt Institute, McGennis took a position with a pavement engineering company and moved to Austin, Texas. When her then-beau, now husband, Bob, moved to Arizona, McGennis began splitting time between states. One day, Bob suggested she find a job in the Valley of the Sun and relocate there full-time. He heard from a coworker that the AZAGC President David Martin was looking for help, so McGennis applied. McGennis was already familiar with trade association work and figured it would be an easy transition.
Martin wanted to focus on policy and needed someone to do secretarial work, but McGennis again refused to settle for stenography. “I said, ‘I can do that, but I can do a lot more,” McGennis recalled. “He said, ‘Okay, forget that. We're going to hire you.’ So, it became a job that morphed into a jack of all trades.”
Impressed by McGennis's drive and experience, Martin became not just a boss but a professional mentor as well. “He taught me everything about policy, and his direction is what helped me be successful in the person that I am,” McGennis said. “With his oversight, I feel like we were able to do many good things for our industry. Martin's knowledge of policy and strategic thinking is why the AZAGC is the state's most relevant construction trade association.”
Though Martin was an air quality expert, he passed that portfolio to McGennis, who was appointed to the Maricopa County Association of Governments air quality technical advisory committee. She also was chairwoman for the City of Phoenix Small Business Oversight Committee, which was appointed to help small businesses receive a percentage of the construction dollars allocated by the City, started one of the first dust schools, lobbied for funding the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge bypassing the Hoover Dam, and helped contractors keep building in countless other ways.
Doing that work, McGennis became convinced that an ounce of training was worth a pound of punitive sanction. For instance, her dust and erosion school increased industry compliance from 49 percent to 93 percent, resulting in companies avoiding work stoppages, communities getting cleaner air, and the state continuing to grow. She delivered similar results with stormwater runoff and in many other areas.
Over the years, McGennis witnessed contractors’ technical acumen, professional pride, and personal kindness. “They are the most generous people I've ever met; they truly care about their employees, this industry, and their community.” It's just a point of pride for them,” McGennis says.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Mar/Apr 2023 issue, Vol. 12, No. 2.